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Los Angeles residents spend an average of 100 hours each year sitting in traffic.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

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Congestion pricing is the only way to fix our broken transportation system

Streets will only work for everyone when drivers pay their fair share to use them

Last week, Los Angeles’s Metro board, which oversees the second-largest transportation system in the country, discussed a proposal to charge drivers to use LA’s busiest and most traffic-clogged roads, a concept known as congestion pricing. One by one, the board members voiced their opposition to such a policy.

“I am deeply concerned.” “It seems punitive.” “I, too, am really uncomfortable.”

Critics have long deemed congestion pricing a regressive policy that charges car-dependent people more to drive. A well-timed new report—Pricing Roads, Advancing Equityout today by TransForm and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), explains how congestion pricing can be employed as a tool to right engrained injustices in the U.S.’s current transportation system.

“What used to sound radical now sounds like common sense—road pricing is urgently needed to address climate change, traffic, and inequity in the transportation system,” said the report’s co-author Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm. “We believe road pricing can be a transportation equity solution. It can speed buses and carpools while providing revenue to make mass transit more affordable.”

Congestion pricing can be implemented in a variety of ways, according to the Pricing Roads, Advancing Equity report. But the one that hasn’t yet been tried by a U.S. metropolitan area is “cordon” pricing, which would charge drivers to access a designated part of the city, possibly with prices that fluctuate based on the time of day.

Although cordon pricing has been successfully introduced in cities like London, Stockholm, and Singapore, LA’s vote is the first time a major U.S. city has seriously entertained the concept. Previous attempts to introduce comprehensive road pricing—New York City is resurfacing a plan this year, Seattle is still exploring the idea, and San Francisco has studied it in the past—have all been met with sentiment similar to Metro’s board.

But it’s not about punishing drivers. It’s about making sure more people can get more places faster and more affordably, with less environmental impact and less stress.

Done right, notes the report, road pricing has generated revenue to fund better transit service, built out better walking and biking infrastructure, and subsidized fares for students, older adults, and people with disabilities.

Plus, with fewer cars traveling along busy corridors, road pricing can speed up vehicles that get stuck in traffic, improving travel times for drivers and increasing ridership for transit. Even for those who do need to drive long distances, congestion pricing will create less arduous commutes in the short term. In the long term, it would also fund more car-free options.

In fact, those ideas are central to LA’s plan. Metro’s CEO Phil Washington first announced congestion pricing as part of an even grander transportation proposal—using the funds collected from drivers to accelerate critical infrastructure projects, reduce the carbon pollution known to cause climate change, and make all transit free in time for LA’s 2028 Summer Olympics.

“We’re talking about saving mankind here,” he said at a recent meeting. “This is no small thing.”

Of course, the key to making a congestion pricing strategy work for all is to make sure it works best for a city’s most vulnerable communities. In other cities, according to the report, this has been achieved with exceptions for people with disabilities, refunds for trips like medical appointments, and subsidies for low-income workers who rely on vehicles for jobs.

In LA, the Metro board ultimately voted to study the equity issues, but only one board member, board chair Sheila Kuehl, floated the idea that perhaps LA’s current car-centric system was the more inequitable alternative. “If we want to think about equity, we ought to consider the cost of driving,” Kuehl said. “It would be better for people’s budgets if they could have the option of public transit.”

The cost of driving is about much more than people’s personal transportation budgets. Yes, lower-income families spend a higher percentage of their income on transportation. Lower-income families are also more likely to be killed or injured in vehicular crashes. Lower-income families, and particularly people of color, are more often targeted and ticketed by traffic enforcement officials. Lower-income families are more likely to suffer health issues related to roadway pollution. Lower-income families are more at risk in the climate disasters accelerated by carbon emissions.

When those factors are included, the way we get around now doesn’t sound like a system that any leader can possibly consider sustaining.

At the state level, congestion pricing is being championed by New York City state senators and California legislators like Asm. Richard Bloom, who first introduced the idea of testing Go Zones—perhaps a much more palatable name than congestion pricing—last year.

“My constituents spend over 100 hours a year stuck in traffic,” Bloom told NRDC. “This timely report helps ensure that any pricing pilot that moves forward starts with a commitment to improve social equity and create more transportation choices for those who need them the most.”

Earlier this month, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) created a tool for U.S. cities to measure transit accessibility for residents. The indicators examine how close people live to transit, and how effectively transit provides access to jobs. In many major cities, a majority of residents live near frequent or rapid transit.

Yet no major U.S. city has greater than 25 percent of its jobs accessible by a one-hour transit trip, in part due to housing affordability issues which have forced people to live further from job-creation centers.

In Los Angeles, the number of low-skill jobs that can be reached by a 60-minute walking, biking, or public transportation trip is only 5 percent, according to ITDP’s data. That means if you have a high school education, getting to virtually all the jobs in the city requires riding a bus or bike for more than an hour, or spending an average of $5,900 per year purchasing, maintaining, and storing a car.

“For households making less than $20,000 per year, reliable cars are a pipe dream: a huge expense that they can’t afford,” said Joe Chestnut, author of the ITDP report. “Without adequate transit, they will remain stuck in place.”

The average annual income of LA’s bus riders is around $15,000. It’s impossible to look at those numbers and claim that the status quo is fair.

Today’s study by TransForm and NRDC has essentially done the homework for any U.S. city that wants to finally address the true historical inequities in its transit networks. It’s time for leaders everywhere to change the conversation around road pricing and get serious about building out a transportation system that truly works for everyone.

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